Presence vs. Participation

And one said unto him, “Lord, are they few that are saved?”
And he said unto them, “Strive to enter in by the narrow door: for many, I say unto you, shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able. When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying,
‘Lord, open to us;’
and he shall answer and say to you, ‘I know you not whence ye are;’
then shall ye begin to say, ‘We did eat and drink in thy presence, and thou didst teach in our streets;’
and he shall say, ‘I tell you, I know not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity'” (Luke 13:23-27).

Every generation seems to have its great events and personalities, and people cling tightly to the memory of being present for them and with them. People today still talk about where they were and what they were doing when they heard that John F. Kennedy was shot, or the Challenger space shuttle went down, or when they heard about the 9/11 attacks. Many people remember fondly how they directly participated in great events of their day: a presidential inauguration, or a music celebration, or some other iconic event. Others remember fondly when they had the opportunity to hear a given speaker of some reputation.

Imagine, then, what it must have been like to live in first century Israel and to see and hear Jesus of Nazareth! Consider what it must have been like if Jesus came into your village. You saw the sick healed, demons cast out, and the blind given the ability to see (Matthew 9:35). You heard His wonderful teachings and felt a sense of pride and great expectation. You have been able to see the Son of God Himself!

Then, as with all men, your earthly life ends and you stand before the same Jesus on the day of judgment. You feel hopeful– after all, you were there! You saw Him work His power! Maybe He even recognizes you!

But then the message you hear is quite distressing– “Sorry. I never knew you, for you did that which was evil.” After it is too late, you have learned the lesson: it was not enough just to be present. In order to obtain the blessings of Jesus and His Kingdom, you had to be an active participant!

Granted, none of us have seen Jesus in the flesh or were present when He spoke as He did in Luke 13:23-27. Yet we can still hear about Jesus and the things which He accomplished. We can decide to spend our time with people who seek God and His righteousness first (cf. Matthew 6:33). We may also hear various messages about Jesus from various parts of our society and get the impression that as long as we mentally recognize that Jesus is Lord, everything will be just fine. We may feel that as Americans we are God’s new chosen people and that we will certainly enter Heaven– after all, we are Americans, there are a lot of great people in America, and surely God loves Americans enough to save them.

Holiness and righteousness are not like the cold or the flu– they cannot be “caught” by mere presence or exposure. One cannot become holy or righteous simply by being around holy and righteous people, or by just hearing the message of holiness and righteousness (cf. James 1:22-25). We cannot simply be present– we must decide to participate!

The Kingdom is not for “professors,” those who profess belief in Jesus and little more, but it is for those who do the will of the Father (cf. Matthew 7:21-23). We may feel a special attachment to Jesus or to Christianity because we have been present for its message or have experienced it in some way, but that, on its own, does not mean that we get closer to God. Instead, we must seek to enter by the narrow door– the path laid out by Jesus (cf. Matthew 7:13-14, 1 John 2:1-6). We must participate by becoming God’s humble obedient servants, seeking His will and not our own (Romans 6, Galatians 2:20). Let us strive to not just be present but also to participate in God’s Kingdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry

No Remedy

And the LORD, the God of their fathers, sent to them by his messengers, rising up early and sending, because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling-place: but they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and scoffed at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against his people, till there was no remedy (2 Chronicles 36:15-16).

The story of Israel is a story of constant rebellion against God. The people of Israel were willing to believe that God existed, but that did not stop them from serving other gods or to otherwise do what they thought they should do. We learn from the prophets that the rich oppressed the poor, the rulers freely engaged in political machinations contrary to God’s intentions, and the people did as they pleased.

God continually sent prophets to Israel, warning them of their upcoming doom if they did not change their ways. But there were always other “prophets” who said that everything was just fine, and God would save His people because He was God and they were His people. The rulers and the people preferred to listen to the easy message and not the more challenging one. And for a few hundred years, everything seemed to be just fine.

But then the time came when Israel exhausted God’s great patience and loving kindness toward them. In 722 BCE, the northern Israelites were conquered by Assyria and soon exiled. A similar fate befell Judah at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE. There was nothing else that God could have done. There was no remedy.

This is a powerful message for us to consider. Peter informs us in 2 Peter 3:9 that God’s patience toward us is the only reason why this world continues to exist. There are plenty of people who continue to rebel against God. Many such people even believe that He exists, but they still go ahead and serve other “gods” and do as they please. There is still plenty of oppression and political machination going on. And for the past two thousand years, everything has seemed to be just fine.

We may stand up and proclaim God’s truth and the consequences for disobedience, but there are always others who indicate that everything is fine, and that God will somehow eventually save a lot of people or even everyone. Unfortunately, guess which message is better received?

Yes, God has been quite patient with us, and has shown us great kindness by allowing us to have life, let alone the fact that He gave His Son for our redemption (Romans 5:5-11). But a day will come when there will be no more remedy, the patience of God will be exhausted, the Lord will return, and everyone’s eternal fate will be sealed (2 Peter 3:9-12, Revelation 20-22).

Let us not be as Israel and exhaust God’s patience. Let us cease rebelling against our Creator, and serve Him according to His will, so that we may obtain redemption!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Trust Test

Then said the LORD unto Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law, or not” (Exodus 16:4).

The LORD had done most impressive things for the people of Israel. It had not been that long ago that the Israelites were hopeless servants of the mighty Pharaoh of Egypt. The LORD then struck Egypt with ten plagues, led Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground, and drowned the Egyptian army (Exodus 6-14). Israel believed in the LORD and feared Him on the basis of these experiences (Exodus 14:31). But how deep was that belief and trust?

It was now God’s intention to test the people of Israel to see whether they would really follow His law or not. After all the great demonstrations of God’s loving kindness toward Israel, would Israel lean on its God?

They were now in the wilderness– an inhospitable desert. They would not be able to find much food or drink “naturally.” They would have to rely on God if they were to survive!

God would provide the people with food. They were to go out and gather a day’s portion daily save for the sixth day, when they would gather for two days (Exodus 16:4-5). The next morning, after the dew evaporated, a “fine flake-like thing” covered the ground– the “manna” that would sustain the people for the next forty years (Exodus 16:14-15). They were to gather an omer, or about two quarts, per person (Exodus 16:16). These were very simple and straightforward instructions.

Yet many in Israel did not listen. They gathered less or more than an omer per person, and discovered that no matter what, each had his omer (Exodus 16:17-18). Moses then told them to entirely consume it on that day and leave nothing over (Exodus 16:19). Yet again, some did not listen, and they discovered the next day that it had worms and was rotten (Exodus 16:20).

On the sixth day they gathered two omers per person, and Moses commanded the people to prepare it all but save half for the next day, the Sabbath day, a day of solemn rest (Exodus 16:22-23). They were to do no work on the Sabbath day, and they should not expect manna to fall on that day (Exodus 16:25-26). Yet many of the Israelites went out to obtain manna on the seventh day (Exodus 16:27). God was quite displeased with them because they kept refusing His commandments, and then and only then did they abide within His law (Exodus 16:28-30)!

This whole episode reflects mankind’s natural fearfulness and desire to test boundaries. In effect, God is testing Israel to see whether they will truly trust Him or not. Will they follow the commandments regarding the food He provides for them or not? At every turn, many fail to trust God. Some do not go out and get all of the required omer, and others try to get much more. Many do not trust, at first, that there will be manna out there every morning, and so they try to preserve some for the next day. And when God provides extra manna that does not go bad overnight, the people still try to go out and get more on the Sabbath day!

Israel has to learn to trust God, apparently, for they are not doing well at trusting God’s good will toward them and that what He says, goes. They have to find that out for themselves.

Every generation, in some sense or another, goes through the same process. Each generation is warned sternly about the pitfalls of life, and yet plenty of people in each generation must learn the “hard way” through experience. Humans are too bent on their own way!

Wisdom teaches us that it is best to learn from the mistakes of our own past and the past of others. Wisdom also would teach us to follow God’s commands, for they are designed for our own benefit (1 John 5:3). He establishes His will for us for our own good, to help us be more like Him (Romans 8:29, Galatians 2:20). In a sense, God tests every one like He tests Israel: He has decreed His guidelines in the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and He will see whether we will follow Him or not, and whether we truly trust in Him.

Therefore, will we trust in God’s loving kindness, or will we doubt and have to push the boundaries like Israel did? Will our faith prove to be only skin-deep, or will we prove ourselves to truly trust in God no matter what? Let us strive to pass the trust test and not be like Israel!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Purpose

And it came to pass, when the days were well-nigh come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51).

The time had come.

For over two years Jesus taught His disciples and provided many demonstrations of His power. They now recognized that He was the promised Messiah, the Christ of God (Luke 9:20). He made known to them what was about to take place: He would go to Jerusalem, suffer many things, be rejected, be killed, and on the third day be raised up (Luke 9:22).

It was time to accomplish God’s ultimate purpose, and Jesus did not shrink from it. He set His face to go to Jerusalem, knowing precisely what would take place.

It is evident that Jesus led a life of purpose. How else could He have accomplished as much as He did during His short time on the earth (cf. John 21:25)? He knew the Father’s will (John 6:44-48), and He made it His purpose to accomplish it (John 4:54, John 5:30). He did not shrink from fulfilling that will, even when it was quite difficult and led to extreme suffering (Matthew 26:38-39). He fulfilled His purposes, and was exalted, and given the name that is above every name (Matthew 5:17-18, John 19:30, Philippians 2:5-11).

As Jesus led a life of purpose, He calls those who would follow Him to also lead lives of purpose. While we formerly might have lived according to our own desires, with our own purposes (or a lack thereof) in mind, now we are to live according to His purpose, which is for us to die to self and live to Him (Romans 6:15-22, Galatians 2:20). When Jesus says to go and show mercy, love, and compassion, we find opportunities to show love, mercy, and compassion (Luke 6:36, Ephesians 4:32). When Jesus tells us to no longer sin, and to avoid and abhor sin, we do so (Romans 12:9, Galatians 5:19-21). When Jesus directs us to take up our crosses, denying ourselves, and to follow Him, we must do so (Luke 9:23-26)! If we desire to share in His glory, we must first share in His purposes and sufferings (Romans 8:17-18).

Jesus’ purpose for our lives is not easy. It is difficult, challenging, and calls for much suffering. It would be easier to live an aimless life, as so many others do. The cost would be a lot less in this life if we rejected Jesus and lived according to our own passions and desires. The end of the purposeless or selfish live is death, condemnation, and torment (Romans 6:23, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9)!

Therefore, just as Jesus set His face toward the earthly Jerusalem, so we must set our face toward the spiritual Jerusalem. Just as Jesus experienced great suffering and trial in order to enter glory, so we will experience suffering and trial to enter glory. It will all be more than worth it in the end, but it will only come for those who have given themselves over to Christ and live for His purposes. Follow Christ’s purpose for you today, set your face toward the heavenly Jerusalem, and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

What Jesus Saw in Zacchaeus

And he entered and was passing through Jericho. And behold, a man called by name Zacchaeus; and he was a chief publican, and he was rich. And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the crowd, because he was little of stature. And he ran on before, and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way.
And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and said unto him, “Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to-day I must abide at thy house.”
And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully.
And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, “He is gone in to lodge with a man that is a sinner.”
And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have wrongfully exacted aught of any man, I restore fourfold.”
And Jesus said unto him, “To-day is salvation come to this house, forasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:1-10).

Zacchaeus is famous for being a “wee little man,” a character that small children learn about in Bible classes. Yet there is much that grownups can learn from Zacchaeus and his interaction with Jesus.

When the Jews saw Zacchaeus, they saw a little weasel who sided with the oppressor against them. As a publican, or tax-collector, he was equivalent to a Gentile, and probably seen as much worse (cf. Matthew 18:17). If you were trying to find the ultimate example of a sinful person in first century Judea, you would speak about the publican (cf. Luke 18:9-14)!

The publicans were seen as evil because the job attracted some of the least reputable and most corrupt persons in society. They were told to go and collect a given amount from the people, and their salary was whatever they could obtain beyond that amount. Not a few tax collectors would extort double, triple, or even quadruple the necessary funds from the people in order to line their own pockets. You can certainly understand why they were universally disliked!

Therefore, we can understand that when the people of Jericho saw Zacchaeus, they saw one of the most insufferable sinners in their midst– he is not just a tax collector, but is the chief tax collector! The people of Jericho likely could barely stomach the idea that he was a child of Abraham like they were. They would, no doubt, be assured that he would suffer greatly in the pit of Sheol because of his profession and extortion. To them, he was a good-for-nothing tax collector!

But what did Jesus see in Zacchaeus?

Did He see a sinful man, one who was quite guilty of sin? Undoubtedly. Did Jesus understand how Zacchaeus would be perceived by his fellow man? Absolutely.

But Jesus saw a side of Zacchaeus that the rest of the people refused to see. He saw the possibility of repentance in such a man despite his great sin. He perceived how Zacchaeus was extremely interested in seeing Him. Jesus, therefore, did the most unbelievable and amazing thing, at least in the eyes of the inhabitants of Jericho: He decided to lodge with Zacchaeus, of all people!

Were there not many more righteous men in Jericho? In the eyes of the people, certainly. There were probably a few Pharisees in town, maybe a priest or Levite or two. But Jesus stays with the ultimate sinner! Tongues began to wag. People begin to question. If Jesus really was the Son of God, why would He stay with such a man?

Jesus is vindicated by Zacchaeus’ response. Since Jesus was willing to show Zacchaeus love, compassion, and mercy, and to give him a chance, even if entirely undeserved, Zacchaeus responded with repentance. Jesus gently rebukes the crowd by demonstrating how salvation has come and that Zacchaeus is a child of Abraham, even if the people saw him as “too sinful” to “deserve” that status. And we see how Jesus’ ultimate purpose was fulfilled: He came to seek and save the lost.

There is a lot that we can learn from this story. For those who are in sin and separated from their Creator (Isaiah 59:1-2), you can take courage by the example of Zacchaeus, and know that Jesus has provided you love, compassion, and mercy, even though you do not deserve it (Romans 5:5-11, Ephesians 2:1-10). You also can change your ways and begin serving the Lord and be saved, no matter what you have done (1 Timothy 1:12-16).

All of us, however, can learn from Jesus and what He saw in Zacchaeus. If we are honest with ourselves, we will recognize that we have played the part of the people of Jericho far too often. We have seen terribly sinful people and believe that there was almost no chance for them to be saved. We have despised such people in our heart, especially if those people have oppressed us or harmed us in some way. We certainly could not see how any truly righteous person would have anything to do with such people!

The witness of Scripture is clear: all have sinned, all have fallen short of the glory of the Father (Romans 3:9-23), and that means that none of us have the right to so judge and condemn anyone (Matthew 7:1-5, Romans 14:11-12, James 4:12). The only reason that any of us have a prayer is because God showed us love, compassion, and mercy, and that despite ourselves (Romans 5:5-11, Titus 3:3-8). Those “terrible sinners” have just as much right to obtain God’s grace, repent of their sins, and be obedient as any of the rest of us do. God shows no partiality (Romans 2:11)!

Therefore, when we encounter “terrible sinners,” let us remember that just as Jesus would show them love, mercy, and compassion, even though they do not deserve it, so we should also show them love, mercy, and compassion. It may very well be that we have little influence on their actions or their lives. But you never know when the person that you have written off as a “terrible sinner” may turn out to be a Zacchaeus, one who will hear and change his ways. Let us all strive to maintain humility and reflect the love of Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Give Us a King!

But the people refused to hearken unto the voice of Samuel; and they said, “Nay: but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:19-20).

Everyone would admit that the period of the Judges was difficult.  For three hundred years or so Israel participated in a vicious cycle of idolatry, oppression, deliverance, and a fall back into idolatry.

But things were not getting better.  The Philistines were stronger oppressors than previous adversaries.  While Eli and Samuel were competent judges, their sons did not follow in their footsteps.

What Israel sought seemed logical.  The judge system was not getting them anywhere fast.  Perhaps if they had a centralized authority and administration, they could finally defeat their enemies and have peace.

Yet Israel was distinctive because of all the nations in the world, they had the LORD of Hosts as their King.  By repudiating the system of government which He set up, Israel was really repudiating Him.

Israel would not be persuaded otherwise.  They were not thinking in the long-term, how that centralized authority would virtually enslave them with taxes and levies, and how that centralized authority would end up leading all Israel into some type of captivity.  They wanted a king– and they wanted him now.  Just like all the nations.

As Christians, we are to be a “different” type of people.  We are not to conform to the world, but to be conformed into the image of Jesus the Son (Romans 12:1; 8:29).  We stand as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven (Philippians 3:20), serving Christ the Lord and King.

There is always the temptation, however, to want to be like the nations around us and lose our distinctive nature in order to do what seems to us to be better.  In such a condition, as opposed to obtaining our “inspiration” from God, we get our “inspiration” from those around us in the world.  It may seem logical, and we can come up with all the reasons we want to justify it, but it is the same in the end.

When we seek a “king” so that we can be like “all the nations,” we repudiate the rule of Christ the Lord.  Let us always look to Him for our direction!

If then ye were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth (Colossians 3:1-2).

Ethan R. Longhenry

Summing Up the Law

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, trying him: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
And he said unto him, “‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.’ This is the great and first commandment. And a second like unto it is this, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ On these two commandments the whole law hangeth, and the prophets” (Matthew 22:35-40).

We like short and sweet.  Lengthy explanations and excessive details are considered boring and tedious, even when we recognize that complexity exists.

Succinct explanations help when they keep the “big picture” in mind.  Especially in religious circles, many have missed the proverbial forest for the trees.  Jesus came face to face with many such people in His ministry: the Pharisees were condemned for focusing excessively on details while neglecting the weightier aspects of the Law (Matthew 23:23-24).

Jesus provides the “big picture” of the Law: love the LORD with all of our faculties, and love our neighbors as ourselves.  As summations go, there can be no better; in truth, not a detail is lost.  All of our missteps, difficulties, sins, and shortcomings come from a lack of love for God or neighbor.

Why love?  The virtues of love are exalted in 1 Corinthians 13; we may summarize Paul’s message by saying that love is seeking the best interest of the beloved (cf. Romans 13:10).  Love for God is seeking His will and not our own (Hebrews 11:6).  When we love God, it is no longer we who live, but God in us (cf. Galatians 2:20).  If we live lives of sacrifice, as we are charged to do in Romans 12:1, we easily avoid iniquity.

Loving our neighbor can be challenging; after all, our neighbor often wrongs us, cheats us, or perhaps is entirely indifferent toward us.  Yet the power of the “Golden Rule” of Luke 6:31 haunts us: if we view our neighbor in such stark and dismal terms, how does our neighbor look at us?

How would we want to be treated?  Such dictates how we should treat others.  The parable of the Good Samaritan shows us what it takes to be a good neighbor (Luke 10:25-37): sacrifice and humility, helping without expectation of commendation or reward.  After all, this is what we seek from God, is it not?

It seems so easy to talk about “loving God” and “loving our neighbor,” and yet so difficult to put into practice.  It is far easier to be as the Pharisees, so devoted to the trees of various doctrines and technicalities that we neglect the important things.  If we have not love, we face condemnation.  Let us lay aside our own interests and instead put God’s interests and the best interest of our neighbor ahead of ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry